The Fracking Boom's Other Frontier

The rules are set, and now high level fracking is about to come to Illinois. It's the controversial method of drilling for oil and natural gas deep below the ground. But, as the fracking debate subsides, another debate is surfacing in Illinois. This one over a natural resource that is becoming invaluable to frackers -- sand. We traveled 100 miles west of Chicago where some believe Illinois' most popular state park may be threatened by this booming industry.

Merlin Calhoun's property sits atop a bluff overlooking the Illinois River in LaSalle County, about an hour and a half west of Chicago. He's surrounded by forests, canyons, rivers, and rock formations that form the Illinois River Valley.

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“This is a beautiful piece of property,” said Calhoun. “It's a beautiful valley.”

The natural resources form the landscape that draws visitors, but are also responsible for the county's biggest industry: mining.

A company called Mississippi Sand is getting set to mine in an empty field below Calhoun's property. But Calhoun says he's not just worried about his quality of life. He and other residents have protested the mine's proximity to Starved Rock State Park.

“You have to weigh the cost compared to the benefits, especially with this mine here being so close to Starved Rock,” he said.

“It's an iconic state park. It’s the most visited state park in the state. It represents a beautiful natural area that's within a driving distance for a large population,” said Lenore Beyer-Clow, a policy director with Openlands, an environmental group that has filed a lawsuit to stop the mine.

She says the mine could pollute the water that flows into Starved Rock, which could threaten the rock formations. She says state regulatory agencies fast-tracked approval of the mine without vetting how it would impact the environment.

“Right now, we don't know. That's the issue. There wasn't enough review and studies and understanding to know that. And so that’s really what this [lawsuit] is all about, making sure the impacts are fully reviewed and evaluated before they move forward,” said Beyer-Clow.

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources, which both runs Starved Rock and regulates the mining industry, is named in the lawsuit. The agency responded with the following statement: “During the review process, the IDNR examined potential impacts to threatened and endangered species in the area and has made recommendations to the county board based upon that analysis. The mining company has provided and satisfied all information requirements provided by law and thus, IDNR approved its permit to the company. "

But environmental groups also worry that the noise and traffic from the mine will hurt tourism to the park. Mine supporters say the company plans to build a 30-foot berm separating the pit from the road, so it will like the mine isn't even there. And they say the area needs the jobs.

“This mine alone will create 39 permanent jobs that offer great health benefits,” said Steve Russo with the Operating Engineers 150. “You're looking at jobs that are $70,000 a year, plus.”

Russo says that the economic impact goes beyond the mining. Each mine leads to other support jobs, like truck drivers and barge operators. And he says the fracking boom in Illinois has made sand a hot commodity.

Here's why: to get oil and natural gas via horizontal hydraulic fracturing, frackers blast a substance that includes water, chemicals, and sand into the shale rock deep below the ground. Sand particles are used to keep the rock cracked open as oil and gas is pumped out. The best frack sand in the world, according to industry experts, comes from the sandstone that form the dramatic cliffs along the Illinois River.

“The sandstone here sets the bar for everywhere else throughout the world because it’s the hardest, roundest sand, so it works the best for the mines,” said Russo.

Russo also notes that the property owned by Mississippi Sand butts up against the eastern edge of Starved Rock, but the pit itself will not.

“There's a lot of misinformation out there. One of the things is people say that they're going to mine the bluffs of Starved Rock, that they’re going to be doing fracking on the property,” he said. “And, as you can see, the only thing that they’re going to do here is mine the flat part. They're not mining the bluffs.”

The mine near Starved Rock is one of more than a half a dozen sand mines either in production or scheduled to go into production. The outcry has caused LaSalle County to institute a countywide moratorium on any future sand mines. 

County officials say they will allow residents to weigh in, and then come up with a comprehensive land use plan for the valley before the moratorium is lifted. Russo hopes its lifted soon. He believes the sand is plentiful and the industry will grow for decades to come.

“You're looking at jobs that people could get here, and they could retire, and it would go to the next generation,” said Russo.

But residents like Merlin Calhoun fear the more mines dug in the Illinois River Valley, the less anyone will want to visit it.

“People say, ‘Well, there's a lot of mines in the area. One more, what's it going to hurt?’ But it’s like an apple. It might have a little bruise and that's fine, but if you keep throwing that apple down and bruising it and bruising it, sooner or later, there comes a point where it’s no longer appealing to anyone,” said Calhoun.

The Mississippi sand mine is expected to be mined for 40 years and then filled in with water and given over to the county. It could one day even become part of Starved Rock.

Chicago Tonight reached out to the company, Mississippi Sand, several times but received no response. Despite the lawsuit, the company is expected to announce the beginning of its mine operations in the next few days.

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